Like the year before, many of 1964’s less impressive pop songs found themselves lagging behind the times. Trends that started the decade on top were now yesterday’s news, and as a new crop of young, hungry artists breathed life back into the charts, not everyone in the record industry was so quick on the uptake. Between the dregs of the already-stale surf rock craze and the unexpected resurgence of horrid novelty singles, I managed to find plenty to hate this year in between all the classic soul and Beatles tunes. Before things really kick into high gear for the second half of the 60s, we’ve got 10 more stinkers to knock out. On with the show!
#10: Al Hirt- Cotton Candy
Thus far, I’ve praised a fair few instrumental tracks on my best lists, and eventually I started to ask myself: What would a really bad instrumental pop hit sound like? This year, that question was finally answered by New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt with his top 20 hit “Cotton Candy”. Hirt cut his teeth in the New Orleans jazz scene throughout the ‘50s, and as The Village Stompers proved last year, I’m more than capable of enjoying that classic jazz sound, but “Cotton Candy” is, for lack of a better word, totally derpy. It sounds like music that would play during a gag “technical difficulties, please stand by” shot in a cartoon- listenable enough for a dozen or so seconds, but utterly grating well before the 2-minute mark where it ends. Combine that with Hirt’s weedy fart of a trumpet tone, and you have a tune as substanceless and ephemeral as its namesake.
#9: Jan and Dean- The Little Old Lady from Pasadena
After the surprise success of “Surf City”, Jan and Dean decided to pivot entirely to the burgeoning surf rock sound, but as genre figurehead Brian Wilson slowly ventured into more high-minded territory, Jan And Dean mired themselves ever-further in surf rock’s stupidest and worst cliches. “Little Old Lady” is yet again an extremely obvious attempt to ape the Beach Boys, but it’s halted in its tracks by impressively dumb lyrics about an old woman who drives a slick new sports car (you see, one would not normally expect an elderly woman to drive a cool car, but this one? She does, in fact, drive a cool car). Musically, it’s entirely rote surf-rock and third-rate vocal harmonies. At this point, the Beach Boys were blasting out three new albums every year! The world was not in short supply of songs with this exact sound executed with infinitely more style and creativity, and the fact that the encroaching British invasion brought Jan and Dean’s tenure as pop stars to such a screeching halt while The Beach Boys continued to flourish is, in my view, a testament to their lack of imagination as artists.
#8: The Serendipity Singers- Don’t Let the Rain Come Down
At one point in the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, struggling folkie Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac), strapped for cash and needing to pay for an estranged ex-girlfriend’s abortion, stoops to the level of recording a dopey novelty track called “Please Mr. Kennedy” for a quick buck. The joke is mostly on Davis, a tortured artiste who thinks himself above pop fluff like this, but you can sympathize with his plight somewhat. All he wants is to make something meaningful, something authentic and hard-hitting, and “Please Mr. Kennedy” is just such a doofy piss-take of a tune; watching him grit his teeth through the whole recording session is genuinely a bit tragic. I don’t know if “Don’t Let The Rain Come Down” served as any kind of inspiration for “Please Mr. Kennedy” (The songwriters based it mostly on a George Cromarty tune of the same name, and the film is set three years before this song’s release), but either way it scans as the exact same sort of trifle a Llewyn Davis would instinctively gag upon hearing- “folk” in only the loosest, most bastardized sense. However, in this case, the joke is on me, because while “Please Mr. Kennedy” is ultimately a pretty fun, jaunty little number, “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” is as tiresome and shallow as they come. The vocal performances are stiff and featureless, the nursery-rhyme cadence of the verses gets old after the first few repetitions of “crooked little [blank]”, and those little “ah-ah, oh no”s in the chorus never fail to set my teeth on edge. I’m no folk purist, but if any song could get me grousing about pop sellouts ruining the genre, this would be it.
#7: Roger Miller- Chug-a-Lug
On the subject of dumb-as-bricks novelty tunes, Roger Miller brought us one of the very dumbest this year with “Chug-a-Lug”. The sad thing about this song is that it’s so tantalizingly close to being dumb enough to be a guilty pleasure, or at the very least a fun singalong to annoy your parents with. Maybe with a more involved vocal delivery or a zanier arrangement- hell, even just speeding up the tempo a bit might have tipped it over the edge into being something resembling a good time. But, as it stands, it’s just a thunderously moronic, knuckle-dragging paean to underage drinking that lays the hillbilly stereotypes on thick. It almost gets there, but more’s the pity that I can’t find it in me to holler ‘hi-de-ho’ over this one.
#6: The Newbeats- Bread and Butter
Here’s another one where the potential for something more is plainly evident. The chorus is alright, the vocals are a little annoying but not unforgivably so, and the production is pretty solid too. All that said: have you ever been surprised to learn how few chords a song is built on, just because the instrumentation or the melody makes it feel like there’s more to it? “Bread and Butter” is not one of those songs. Once you realize that over 90% of the song is just flip-flopping between C major and F major, everything wrong with the song snaps into focus. It simply doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Even the G7 they sneak in at the end of each verse comes and goes so quickly that you’ll hardly notice it’s even there if you aren’t paying close attention. It’s such a homogenous song that the decent musical ideas the song is based around never get enough context or contrast to be appreciable for what they are. Had it been fleshed out a bit more, it could have been an enjoyably breezy pop lark, but what we get instead just feels like a first draft.
#5: Bobby Vinton- There! I’ve Said it Again
“There! I’ve Said it Again” was the last #1 single before the arrival of the Beatles in America. That’s an unenviable position for any song to be in, but even more so for this one, because I’d be hard-pressed to find another song from 1964 that so thoroughly teed itself up to be completely irrelevant and outdated by the end of the year. It’s a sappy, boring ballad with an overblown string section that tries to lend the song a grandeur that neither the lyrics nor Vinton’s voice can support. It’s fourth-or-fifth-rate Perry Como-isms and limp, unenthusiastic romanticizing from top to bottom. If there’s a redeeming factor here, it’s that perhaps this song deserves some credit for the Fab Four’s breakthrough, as a sort of perfectly-timed reminder of how overdue this type of guff was for retirement.
#4: Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas- Little Children
Thank the heavens that the tenure of “little girl” as culturally acceptable terminology for any young woman was finally coming to a gradual end by this time. From here on out, male pop singers crooning lustfully about women of dubious legality becomes a somewhat rarer occurrence. However, there were still stragglers, people who for one reason or another hadn’t gotten the memo. Then there was Billy J. Kramer, who in the year of our lord 1964 made the conscious decision to record a song called “Little Children”, where he admonished very young children to not tell anyone “what he’s doing”. It’s honestly shocking how oblivious Kramer seems to be to the very clear pedophilic implications here. Take out the one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line where he clarifies that what he’s doing is kissing the children’s (presumably older) sister, it reads exactly like he’s just out-and-out sexually grooming schoolchildren. And even then, the more you think it over, if he’s so adamant that no one finds out he’s kissing this girl, is she actually of an appropriate age to be involved with him? What other reason could he have for wanting to keep it so hush-hush? Musically, it’s creepily sugar-sweet and saccharine, only worsening the predatorial vibe of the whole thing. It’s not quite interesting enough to truly loathe, but the levels of “what on earth were they thinking???” here are nonetheless staggering.
#3: Barbra Streisand- People
I won’t beat around the bush here: I don’t like Barbra Streisand. I’ve never liked her. The woman is clearly a gifted singer, and I won’t begrudge her her success throughout the years, but I have just never been able to tolerate Barbra Streisand even a little bit. It feels like I could probably trace a direct lineage from every tedious, no-talent adult contemporary singer of the past 40 years right back to Streisand, and probably even to this very song. The blend of Broadway theatrics and pre-Elvis pop snoozery make “People” a stylistic nightmare, and Streisand’s delivery comes off as infuriatingly self-satisfied. I don’t even think that either the lyrics or her voice are that bad in a vacuum, but something about the combination of the two just scans as so above-it-all and smirky, like she thinks the observation that it’s nice when people fall in love is some deep philosophical insight that the rest of us are too stupid to make. I was extremely tempted to bump this all the way to my #1 spot, and honestly I still have half a mind to do just that, but even I can acknowledge that it’s at least competently made and performed, enough so that I can’t quite hate it with the fiery passion I might if the execution was sloppier.
#2: Millie Small- My Boy Lollipop
It’s probably a good thing that classic reggae like the Wailers or the Congos has never really troubled the year-end hot 100, because, confession time: I don’t have much of a taste for reggae or any of its adjacent genres. Maybe it’s because the constant use of the same few mid-tempo rhythms makes it all feel kind of samey to me, or maybe it’s because so many of the lyrics address social issues I’m not personally invested in. Hell, maybe it’s just because I’ve never been a particularly devout consumer of Jamaica’s favorite herb, but even the most celebrated and culturally impactful reggae has generally left me pretty cold. So, I suppose it’s convenient for me that whenever a reggae song does cross over into the mainstream, it’s almost always the most gentrified, unchallenging, Miami country-club version of the genre you could possibly conceive of. Case in point: “My Boy Lollipop”, supposedly one of the first ska/reggae tracks to find success in America, presumably by being so watered-down that it’s barely distinguishable from regular bubblegum pop. While the lack of anything that feels authentically Jamaican isn’t a huge issue for me, I can’t help but be a bit offended on behalf of ska fans in the 60s, that this was what introduced their music to an international audience. There’s nothing at all about this song that would raise even the WASPiest of eyebrows, except perhaps Millie Small’s bleating voice, which sounds like a xerox of a xerox of Brenda Lee. While this song does deserve some credit for its importance in the history of Jamaican music, it’s a shame that credit can’t be given to a more enjoyable song.
#1: The Trashmen- Surfin’ Bird
Among Seth MacFarlane’s many crimes against culture and good taste is his partial responsibility for this dreadful little earworm’s persistence in the modern pop cultural lexicon. Still, even MacFarlane realized that this song is so end-to-end insufferable that only a maladjusted, thoughtless goon like Peter Griffin could possibly derive any trace of pleasure from hearing it. Throughout the 2008 Family Guy episode “I Dream of Jesus”, Peter torments everyone around him with this song, and as much I don’t like the episode, I’ll admit that it’s a pretty inspired choice- If there is one song that feels like it is actively tormenting you for its entire runtime, this is it. It pesters you for a full two-and-a-half minutes with singer Steve Wahrer’s taunting, nasal voice, then continues to pester you for however much longer it pleases by becoming intractably lodged in your cranium. It’s catchy in the absolute worst way: by doing one thing over and over until your brain just accepts it and starts repeating “ba-ba-ba-bird is the word” to itself. To add insult to injury, every part of this wretched thing was pilfered from two vastly superior songs by The Rivingtons, both of which it proceeded to outsell many times over. Forget Pat Boone: The Trashmen were by far the worst culture vultures of the 60s, and they and “Surfin’ Bird” deserve to rot in obscurity.